Words and photographs by Erin Lowe, Hydrofarm’s Southwest Sales Manager and Garden Guru
Part One of Two
Gardening is a practice almost as old as the human race, and recently more and more people are finding that growing food is a fun way to save money and eat well. I’ve grown up knowing this! My grandparents on both sides came from the Appalachians. In that area and in their time period, growing food and raising livestock was necessary for survival. I was fortunate enough to learn from them. Their methods were simple and effective. The produce was excellent compared to what’s available in today’s supermarkets. Anyone who has compared a hothouse tomato to a homegrown tomato will tell you that.
The good news for all of us is that we have products available to us that my grandparents could never have imagined. What was formerly a very labor intensive project can now be fairly simple, even on a larger scale. I thought it would be fun to share how I combined some of the simple older techniques with modern products.
I grow all sorts of vegetables, herbs and flowers, but I’ll start by explaining my approach with tomatoes, since they’re a big reason that people start to think about gardening, and they’re synonymous with summer. Tomatoes are an interesting plant. I find them to be a bit wild and unruly by nature. They tend to be bullies and will try to overgrow any attempt to confine them. That’s where you come in.
Pruning: fear not and keep it small
Don’t be afraid to prune your tomatoes. They can’t overgrow your garden shears. There’s a process to pruning and I don’t touch the plants until they are big enough to be staked.
The key is to prune small amounts to promote plant growth in the direction of your choice. I’ve found that the produce is much better tasting and better sized when you prune correctly.
It is also a good idea to prune as you harvest. You’ll notice that the plant will constantly generate fresh growth that will flower and provide more tomatoes in time.
Here is a photo of a cherry tomato plant that has been producing for almost 3 months now. I pulled about 75 ripe tomatoes from it before I pruned it back and took this photo. When pruning leave as many new growth shoots as possible. That’s your next round of tomatoes. If you do this properly you’ll have tons of tomatoes and each successive cycle will form on thicker branches which help support the weight of the produce.
Careful with those garden shears!
Remember to be careful when you prune or you may snip something you shouldn’t have. I had 9 varieties of tomatoes until I made a bad snip and now my yellow Roma tomatoes are gone.
Over the years I’ve tried lots of potting mixes with varying degrees of success. I now exclusively use one thing for my tomatoes. I use a coco fiber based blend with perlite. The manufacturer includes a few additives to beef it up a tad. The blend is immediately ready to receive fertilizer. This is a bonus. I get to choose what I feed the plants from day one. To be clear I have no incentive to pick one brand over another. The truth is I like all the brands we stock and supply. Think of them less in terms of brand and more in terms of them being different tools. The blend I chose hydrates very easily, wicks, and contains very little if any compost. This is very important for me and my style. I use a very precise amount of water and a breathable fabric container If the potting mix didn’t wick it wouldn’t saturate evenly due to how the plants are irrigated. I use drip rings made from ¼ inch soaker hose that are about half the diameter of the 45 gallon containers the plants are grown in.
This keeps the base of the plant from getting over watered and helps get the root ball moving outward when the plants are young. Due to the container’s size, the fact it is breathable fabric, my specific choice of potting mix, and micro-irrigation, I can water every day without drowning my tomatoes. Tomatoes don’t like to be soaking wet all the time. When tomatoes are kept wet bad things happen like fusarium wilt. If you’ve grown tomatoes in the ground outdoors more than once you likely know what I’m talking about.
Healthy tomatoes at stake
I learned over the years that a good tomato staking system is hard to come by. No matter what brand or style I bought, nothing seemed to fit. Some were so small the tomato plants crushed them. Others were so large they wouldn’t work in container gardening. I always ended up with something makeshift. I recently started using a tough adjustable system and I never looked back. They can be arranged in almost any manner you can think of and they are reasonably priced.
Tomatoes need food too
I feed my plants once per week using the same irrigation system I supply tap water with. This is another reason that I use 45 gallon containers. By feeding once per week I needed to make sure the container held enough food in the potting mix to last until the next feed. It also helps keep the cost down by not using fertilizer every time I water. When fertilizing I use a 45 gallon barrel to hold my mixture. I disconnect the main irrigation line from the spigot and irrigation cycle timer and I connect the system to a sump pump in the barrel to deliver it.
Everything I chose to install was selected to be as trouble free and convenient as possible. I selected emitters that won’t clog very easily and can be replaced “on the fly” if need be. I also added shutoff valves in various sections of the main irrigation line so that I could cut the supply of water to any particular area required. This allows you to supply specific batches of fertilizer to specific plants with ease. My system’s flexibility allows me to handle large amounts of work unassisted. The weekly feeding process was taking about an hour and a half to do manually with a watering wand. With the system in place now it takes about 20 minutes from start to finish. I was using about 135 gallons of fertilizer mix weekly to feed everything manually. With the automated system in place I’ve reduced that to 70 gallons or less.
Heirlooms for better flavor
I grow several heirloom varieties of tomatoes. Another thing I learned from my family is that heirloom varieties taste better. Some of them are finicky, but are well worth the effort. I grow some early producing varieties like Oregon Spring and Early Girl so that I have something to eat while I’m waiting for the Beefsteak, Mortgage Lifters, Garden Leader Monster, Brandywine, and Black Krim to finish. I suggest trying several types in the beginning and then saving seeds from your favorites to use next year. This approach will help the plants acclimate to your location. The successive generations of tomatoes should improve slightly within a year or so. The seeds will tap into genetic information that dates back to their beginning and choose the set of parameters that best fits the next attempt at a growing season. While this is far from foolproof, it does shift the odds slightly in your favor with such a controlled system. I get to attempt to coax the best effort from the plant using a high quality plant food and supply it with the best possible root zone conditions. The key here is consistency because plants don’t respond very quickly to change. I took the time to set this system up so I could repeat the process again next year. I’ll use seeds I saved and will know that I’ll be able to replicate the conditions without much variance from the previous year. You can accomplish the same thing with one plant on a patio if you pay attention and follow a schedule.
If you’re interested in learning more about growing tomatoes, check out “Tomato: A Guide to the Pleasures of Choosing, Growing and Cooking,” which is available through any store that carries Hydrofarm products.
In part two, I’ll discuss my techniques for growing other vegetables, including corn, peppers, carrots, beans, watermelon, sunflowers and much more, with lots of photos. I’ll also offer some pest control ideas.